Alternate plots for The Age of Innocence

I know I moved on from The Age of Innocence a while ago, but I found this really interesting piece of information about the book that I thought was worth sharing.  It seems that, in her papers, Edith Wharton left behind her two different alternate plots for the story of Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska and the rest.  They’re stored in an archive at Yale: here’s the gist of each alternate plot.

In one, Newland is already engaged when he meets Olenska.  He falls in love with Ellen, but goes through with the marriage to May.  His love for Ellen, though, cannot be silenced, and so he runs off with her for a secret tryst in Florida, with the idea that from there they’ll leave society behind (and he’ll tell May their marriage is over).  In Florida, though, he realizes that he will never feel at ease living outside the society he has always known.  Ellen, meanwhile, realizes how boring Newland truly is, and the two of them mutually agree that they really have nothing in common.  Newland returns to New York, no one the wiser, and settles down to married life, while Ellen leaves for Europe.

In the other alternate plot, May manages to convince Newland to break off the engagement.  May marries another man, and Newland marries Ellen.  They begin well, feeling truly in love and enjoying their honeymoon, but after returning to New York, they rapidly realize how ill-suited they are to each other.  Newland can never really be happy outside of the closed-off society he’s learned to move in all his life, and Ellen can’t bear to remain on this side of the ocean when a life of culture, etc., awaits her in Europe.  They agree to a simple and formal separation—Ellen moves to Europe to live on her own, and Newland moves in with his mother and sister to live out the rest of his days.

I found this really fascinating.  I’m wondering, for those of you familiar with the novel, what you think of these plots, why you think she chose to reject them, and whether she made the right choice.  I have my own opinions, but I’d like to hear from others first.

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2 comments on “Alternate plots for The Age of Innocence

  1. […] it was a recent post of his on a better known Pulitzer book, the classic Age of Innocence, that prompted me to post today. […]

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    Geez. It’s not close. In either of the alternate plots, we lose the biting examination of NYC society because we don’t give Newland a chance to struggle within it in the same way, or for as long. And the question in the epilogue about whether an actual affair with Ellen would have been as valuable as the sense that there was another, valuable life he could have had, and that parts of that life are still out there somewhere…we lose most of that. Wharton made the right call. This book loses much of its power if Ellen and Newland ever do more than kiss furtively in carriages.

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